In his marvellous essay on writing about 9/11, ‘Can poetry console a grieving public?’, Mark Doty sets out the difficulties of writing about public tragedy. Can one bear witness to ‘the inchoate stuff of experience’ ─ intensely felt private pain or even anger ─ and yet also keep faith with ‘language’s project of discovering and articulating meaning’ which is, of course, the poet’s task as writer?
A Portable Paradise is one robust response. Divided into five sections, book’s first section comprises eleven poems on the Grenfell Disaster which circles around the burning tower and its traumatic legacy. In a mixture of prose and poetry, ‘Haibun for Lookers’, there are searing images of confusion, chaos and desperation as Grenfell inhabitants are trapped by the destructive flame racing up the building like a malevolent giant snake, its light ironically mirrored by light of mobile phones from spectators below. In the days after, little gestures and small rituals that the living use to shore up against deep despair are particularly poignant. A daughter brings breakfast, ‘combs her mother’s hair and lays clothes on the bed’; she reads while hearing ‘Umm Kulthum singing about her heart on the radio’. In ‘The Portrait Museum’ makeshift posters capture portrait snapshots from ordinary life; these are ‘flimsy faces of hope for the living’ who ‘refuse this first day of mourning’ ─ but they are gradually blown away. ‘The Missing’ is heart-breaking; the dead are imagined to float,
a conveyor belt of pure air,
slow as a funeral cortege,
past the congregants…
mutter[ing], What about me Lord,
why not me?
But such an ‘airborne pageantry of faith’ is not abstract but built up from a small range of individuals, imagined in all their quotidian diversity. Two simple lines at the poem’s end bring home the mythic power of the Biblical Rapture but reimagined as anguish:
They are the city of the missing.
We, now, the city of the stayed.